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The Numbers Problem
September 9, 2020

The very nature of sex trafficking makes it incredibly difficult to track. There’s no national or international registry of sex traffickers, no single document tracing all the victims. Over the years, different countries have shown varying capacities for keeping records, and varying political will to tackle the problem enough to know how big of a problem it is. About 10 to 15 years ago, it was common to see estimates of the number of trafficking victims to vary wildly from hundreds of thousands, to a few million, to 20 or 30 million or more.


The Problem With Sketchy Numbers

Naturally, many NGOs and various activist groups would latch on to the larger end of the scale, hoping the numbers would provoke interest and urgency in combating the problem. There are built-in incentives to run with inflated numbers to help grow the anti-trafficking movement–and funding for it.

But that strategy led others to call the legitimacy of their claims into question. Trafficking scholar Ronald Weizer is prominent among critics who’ve argued that estimates about the scale of trafficking and about the claim that it was on the rise have been hardly more than guess work, and largely unsubstantiated. Calling the veracity of the data into question calls into question the veracity of the anti-trafficking movement’s claims writ large. If people feel your claims are over-blown, it’s probably not going to attract them to the cause, and it may even do the opposite and turn them away.

And there have been other big blows to the credibility and legitimacy of the anti-trafficking movement. One of the biggest ones was Somaly Mam.

Cambodian Activist Somaly Mam

One of the most influential voices in anti-trafficking was Somaly Mam. She was from Cambodia, and had an incredibly compelling story about how she had been trafficked as a child, and then later went on to advocate for other trafficking victims, eventually writing a book and starting a foundation. And she shared stories about the girls she was helping. She was so compelling, she drew the attention and support of major international organizations, and top-level politicians, celebrities, and journalists. 

Then in 2014, Newsweek published an expose that called all her claims into question. According to the article’s sources, Somaly Mam had never been trafficked herself and the stories she told of some of the girls she had helped also seemed to be fabricated. She resigned from her foundation, but she stuck to the veracity of her claims in an interview with Marie Claire magazine. Even her ex-husband asserts that she both lies and that it’s understandable given the context and unimportant given the urgency of other concerns. Everyone who believed her story, and put their own reputations behind it, was left to grapple with salvaging their own credibility in the aftermath, while still trying to confront the very real problem of trafficking that continues regardless.


Dealing with the blow

Working in anti-trafficking is like walking in the dark. We can’t see it as a whole; we can only verify what we actually encounter. Over the years, after such blows to the movement’s legitimacy and credibility, organizations have largely learned to temper their claims. If numbers must be used, most try to be very careful about citing sources, often sticking to estimates produced by major international organizations like the International Labour Organization or the UN’s International Office on Migration. Some sources, like the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Reports, generally don’t state estimates of scale at all. Most focus instead on what is knowable and what can be measured. For example, the Polaris Project derives data from their hotline and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children rely on the data from cases referred to them. We track our impact: the numbers of children that we’re able to give scholarships to, how many people attend our training workshops, the hours our staff have dedicated to counseling, and how many kids graduated instead of dropping out of school.

And yet, even with all the caveats, the data remain vitally important. The only way to understand how to defeat trafficking is to do what is possible in collecting whatever data is available, and to be as honest as possible about the extent and limitations of what those data show. Over the years, the movement has largely let go of a demand for macro-level data and now hopes to collect whatever micro-level data are available, to see if lots of bits of micro-data might come together to produce a narrative that corroborates–or challenges–the macro narrative. Hopefully, with concerted efforts and collaboration, someday we’ll get closer to seeing the full picture.

In the meantime, people new to anti-trafficking should be aware of the problem of numbers. Spreading misleading information, even with the best of intentions, can cause real damage. If you must use estimates, know that they should be taken with the largest possible grain of salt.


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